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Soviet Cinema and Youth

On how youth was depicted in Soviet cinema during the period of Stalinism, Thaw, Stagnation and Glasnost

Essay 2013 13 Seiten


The history of the Soviet Union has shown that the light heartedness, the insouciance and the naive optimism, which distinguishes children and adolescents from their parents and grandparents, can disappear easily in times of war and oppression.

With the takeover of Josef Stalin in the late 1920s, the beginning of one of the darkest periods of the Soviet Union was announced. Stalin’s totalitarian regime was marked by a rigid authoritarianism and a widespread use of terror in form of the so-called purges, which would not end until his death in March 1953.[1] In addition to the Stalinist regime, Soviet Union suffered under the consequences of the Eastern Front War (World War II), in which Soviet Union lost thousands and thousands of men, and the ensuing Cold War. This more than twenty years of terror, purges and war was a time in which children rarely had time to be children, and adolescents very seldom had time for leisure and jauntily dreaming, in short to be young. Nor was it a time in which their personal suffering, like the suffering of their parents and grandparents, appeared on screen. Nevertheless was youth represented in Stalinist movies, a lot of young people were showed riding tractors and starred the popular Stalinist musicals. “Youth was the natural supporter of the new regime “ and the older generations “could be treated with circumspection” (Gillenspie, 2003, p. 164). Though it was never one person only the starred a Stalinist movie, the hero was the collective and individual miseries and fates never played a role in Stalinist cinema. Problems of the youth were hushed up, like all other form of social malaise (Gillespie, 2003, p. 157). Pain and suffering did barely exist officially and were not represented in the movies of the Stalin era, which were meant to serve as an instrument of the communist ideology.

The Stalinist cinema provided the viewers with images of a society that was united by a collective work ethic and its drive to industrialize and modernise. In such a society, “fathers and their children belonged to one happy family and were united in the ideals and values” (Gilespie, 2003, p. 157). This image of the happy family served as miniature parallel image of the happy Soviet community, where everyone took care of everyone and in which all were equals. The strive for this peculiar image of society, which was surely closer to a fairy tale then to reality, became for example visible in The Circus (1936) of Grigori Aleksandrov. In Circus skin colour or origin does not matter, nor does the fact that the protagonist child is illegitimate. All difficulties presented in the movies are intercepted by the collective and when, in the end, everyone is marching towards the red Square in Moscow on the May Day Parade, the fairy tale finally turns into reality (see Beumers, p. 81). This example conveys the impossibility of “a firm place for adolescents and their problems” in Stalinist time, where entertainment and communist propaganda were the only themes allowed in cinema (see Gillespie, 2003, p. 157).

In the chaotic time after Stalin’s death, in the period referred to as the thaw, the youth finally reappears on the screen again. A movie that exemplifies the euphoria of these years after 1953, but likewise “the circumspection of the period”, is I Walk Around Moscow (1964) of Georgii Daneliya (see Woll, 2000, p. 158). The main character of the movie is Kolia (Nikita Mikhalkov) who lives together with his grandmother, mother and sister in a Muscovite apartment. His father died during the Second World War and so did all his brothers. This does, nevertheless, not seem to be a bigger problem for the family. The only person still grieving is Kolias grandmother. For the rest of the family the time of grief is over and their lives are adapted to the modern Muscovite mentality. Kolias mother and his sister are not at all old-fashioned housewives, but rather independent women, who can ask Kolia (the only man in the house) to do the dishes and pick up the sisters child from school, in exchange for that she is sewing the broken trousers of Volodia whom Kolia just got to know.

The two boys, both around 18 years, have just met in the metro when Volodia was asking for the way and Kolia offered his help. Luckily, Volodia accepts the offer of being accompanied by Kolia, instead of following the directions of a middle-aged man, who had argued with Kolia since he got on the metro and represents the disapproval of the older generation towards the younger (cheeky and clever) one. When both boys finally are on their way to the flat of the relatives, where Volodia wants to stay, they meet Kolia´s cousin who carries his two children and asks Kolia about their mother, which he obviously has problems with finding. This little sequence (we will not see or hear about the man later on) indicates that things have changed. In times like this, families are not necessarily happy and together, like seen in Stalin’s cinema.

There is, nevertheless, another incident occurring on their way through Moscow, which illustrates that there are certain values and principals that have though not changed. It starts with a scene where Volodia and Kolia are helping out some children, whose ball has been taken in possession by a big Bulldog. The dog bites Volodia and Kolia is indignant at the fact that someone has not taken his responsibility for the dog and left it with a small boy. Eventually, Kolia finds the woman to whom the dog belongs in a church nearby, forces her to come out with him and confronts her with her own irresponsibility. In this scene Daneliya seems to criticize a certain double moral and the irresponsibility of (adult) people. While the woman is praying to god, appearing good and pious, her dog is biting other people and frightens children outside, because she was irresponsible enough to leave him there to fulfil her own desires. The ones who instead take responsibility and behave mature are the two boys. Even if, and that is also an interesting fact, Kolia does not seem to have any understanding for how one behaves in a church. He is surely not a believer and this might express another generation gap. It is as if Daneliya does not directly announce any critic, but softly and nearly unnoticed reveals that things have changed and that that might be good so.

Throughout the course of the movie Sasha, who is an old childhood friend of Kolia, also accompanies Kolia and Voldodia. In the tradition of the so-called male buddy Soviet movies, I walk around Moscow is depicting the three young men meeting, separating, meeting again and roam around in Moscow (Woll, 2000, p. 158). They have different missions to fulfil: getting a wedding suit for Sasha, who is supposed to get married the same day, inviting the beautiful salesgirl Alena to the wedding party and showing around Volodia, who is just staying in Moscow for one day and will travel home to Siberia the same evening. Kolia is the moving force of the movie and the camera is following him around. It follows him when he is helping Sasha to get a deferral for his army service, supporting him when his marriage is about to dissolve (on the same day he has married) and when he joins Volodia for a meeting with a writer.

I walk around Moscow strongly resembles another popular youth movie of that time, Marlen Khutsievs Ilichs Gate. The similarities are to be found in “its slangy wise cracking dialogue and loving attention to Moscow” as well in its depiction of the Muscovite Internationality (Woll, 2000, p. 159). While in Ilichs Gate it is especially the international soundtrack (jazz/rock´n roll) that sticks out, I walk around Moscow ’ s Internationality is represented through images of a young café owner, which learns English and listens to American music, a Japanese tourist in search for a certain Art-Gallery and Alena enjoying a concert of Latin American music.

There is, nevertheless, a big difference between these two movies. While Khutisev is announcing not just the ”ebullience of youth”, but rather the irresponsibility of the young adults which do not want to grow up, we do not find any such provoking declarations in I walk around Moscow is (Woll, 200, p. 159). Daneliya´s movie seems rather to ask us: Is it really (just) the younger generation, which does not take responsibility, or is it not rather the older generation as well, like the middle aged woman who leaves her dog with a boy when she goes to church? The three boys, though, are not irresponsible or unserious. Sasha, for example, is rather insecure. His insecurity just grows bigger when Kolia is insinuating that his future wife might betray him when he is in the army. He mixes it up completely and finally sits by himself drinking at his wedding night, until Kolia is coming and resolves the problem, which he himself has more or less inflicted. An interesting detail of this scene (at Sasha´s place), is that the young husband is sitting in front of a photo depicting his father (who obviously died, as Kolia´s, during the war) in his Second World War uniform. Sasha seems to be guided by his dead father and seemingly looks up to him.

The moral guidance of the father-generation, even if not being in the fore, is still an underlying principle in I Walk around Moscow, while the principle that all fathers can advise their sons gets scrutinized in Ilichs Gate (Gillespie, 2003, p.157). When Sergei is asking the ghost of his father for advice, he gets responded with the words:


[1] The term totalitarianism has been probably best analysed by Hannah Arendt. In her essay On Authority, she compares totalitarianism with an onion, where the power is emitted from the core to the outer layers with the effect that whatever the leader does he does it from within, and as a consequence the whole society moves, as it were, in time with the leader (Arendt, Between Past and Future: “On Authority”).


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Högskolan Dalarna
soviet cinema stalinism thaw stagnation glasnost



Titel: Soviet Cinema and Youth